By Trudy A. Martinez
Reading and comprehending the novel, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin is an inordinately laborious experience, reminding the reader a woman’s education is lacking during this period. The novel demands the mind of the reader to correspond the novel with appropriate grammar while interpolating and interpreting the historical progression of society from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Anne Rowe cites Chopin’s narrative as an “exploration . . . of such controversial topics as a woman’s right to question society’s expectation of her . . . “(232). This appears to be the reason Anne Rowe implies Chopin is “. . . assured her place . . . in the history of American literature . . . “(232). Anne Rowe states, “Kate Chopin’s life began ordinarily enough giving little hint of controversy that would surround her” (228). Rowe acknowledges a change came upon Chopin shortly after the American Civil War as Chopin “apparently underwent . . . withdrawal from most social activities during which she looked to escapist literature for relief”(229). Anne Rowe also acknowledges Kate Chopin is “ahead of her time in subject matter to a degree of her literary experimentation” (232). What Rowe does not recognize is the extent of Chopin’s genius. Whereas, Mary Wollstonecraft says (and I tend to agree), “Rousseau declares . . . ‘Opinion is the grave of virtue among the men; but its throne among women’. But, even with respect to the opinion of the world, I am convinced that this class of reasoners are mistaken” (133).
The theme of the novel concentrates on the marriage and life of a Southern American woman, Edna, who marries a man of a different religion in “violent opposition of her father . . . to her marriage with a Catholic” (Chopin 19). The belief is since “. . . the conduct of a woman is subservient to the public opinion, her faith in matters of religion should, for that very reason, be subject to authority” (Wollstonecraft 87).
As a consequential repercussion of Edna’s marriage to Leonce Pontellier, Edna is subject to religious differences which leaves her out of step with “. . . the order of nature . . .” (Wollstonecraft 87). Because women are “not in the capacity to judge for themselves”, it is the feeling of a society of men that women shall “abide by the decision of their fathers . . . as confidently as by that of the church” (Wollstonecraft 87).
Chopin uses Edna’s father as a well-found oracle, giving reason for consideration of the Civil War and the War’s affects upon society. In this way, Chopin adds historical substance to the novel because Edna’s father served in the Confederate army as a Colonel. The aftermath of the Civil war produces a force that causes a replacement or alteration of man’s value system and thereby, woman’s, the foundation for the “Love of Man” to conform to its purpose of “sameness”, a concept of partnership (Fromm 12, 69, 70-89). This same force conditions the mind of the people to accept and withstand the cry of agony . . . while tilting the scales of justice in favor of social injustice; thus, affecting the status of women in marriage, in the family, and in the home, in all endeavors in a Jungle of progress (Martinez 1-5), the very heart of Chopin’s novel.
There is an unnatural distinction within the society, in that, “…The private …virtue of woman” is “…very problematical”, for numerous male writers, including Rousseau, insist that woman “should…be subjected to a severe restraint, that of propriety” (Wollstonecraft 144). In the plot, Edna’s destiny is “to realize her position in the universe”; she is “to recognize her relationships as an individual” in her marriage, in her heart (Chopin 15), and in an unnatural society. It is a heavy “weight of wisdom” to bestow on such a young woman, “more wisdom than the Holy Ghost” normally confirms (Chopin 15).
Edna situation provides practical proof (Chopin 15). When she marries, she marries not for love; her marriage is more for prestige (Chopin 19). Edna marries outside of her class structure to a man of prominence, Mr. Pontellier, a French Creole, a member of the old social elite and an aristocracy (Culley 11). Edna weds with two strikes against her because not only does she marry a man from outside her religious beliefs but she also weds into a different culture. Although Edna considers her husband a kind and devoted man, she also weighs the emotional oppression she feels with uncertain anguish and without understanding in silence and solitude (Chopin 8). Edna’s husband, Mr. Pontellier, demands Edna be a slave to his whims and she understand his predominance; For example, he is to come and go as he pleases; she is not to question his actions; she is to be attentive to his desires at all times regardless of the time of day or night (Chopin 5-7). In short, Mr. Pontellier looks upon Edna as his property (Chopin 4).
Edna gains the knowledge she seeks, the knowledge few us find in the parables of the scriptures. “How many souls” perish from agitation? (Chopin 15). Edna’s anguish feeling is a result of her husband’s infliction of criticism; Edna cannot explain it (Chopin 8). Nevertheless, she knows because of her husband’s treatment towards her, she is effectively stripped of her due benevolence as his wife as per the scripture I Corinthians 7:3. For instance, when Edna dares to discourage her husband through inattentive behavior one night, when he returns from Klein’s hotel where he had joined other men for a game of cards, he immediately reciprocates with criticism, finding fault where there is no fault, judging her quilt of neglect to him and to his children (Chopin 7-9). “How many souls” think their harassing works are the answer? (Chopin 15). Consequently, “Edna . . . lived her . . . life . . . within herself” in suffering, it is not her nature to complain. She is living a “dual life”; while outwardly she conforms inwardly she questions (and suffers) (Chopin 15). Of course, Mr. Pontellier justifies his actions through false implications of Edna being his “sole object of existence”; he is persistent and redundant (Chopin 7-9). Edna’s inattentiveness is something Mr. Pontellier “felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without . . . regret and ample atonement” (Chopin 9).
Because of his actions, Mr. Pontellier produces humanism in the form of materialism in restitution for the guilt he feels for his unnecessary harassment towards his wife. In other words since he is unable to justify his actions, he seeks forgiveness from his wife through the giving of money and materialism by way of gifts (Chopin 9).
As the recipient of such gifts, Edna is envied by the Creole women and is “forced to admit that she knew of none better”, when her husband is declared “the best husband in the world” by them (Chopin 9). Therefore, materialism becomes the symbol of Edna’s acceptance by the Creole women.
The Creole woman possess characteristics which differ from Edna as she grew up on a plantation; Edna is not subjected to living in close proximity to others until after her marriage to Mr. Pontellier; she was never exposed to women who spoke so frankly in mixed company (Chopin 6-11). Regardless of the fact that the married Creole woman is graceful and charming, there is a distinctive characteristic, which reflects an “absence of purity” about her. To Edna, the Creole woman has no freedom from evil or quilt, no innocence, no chastity (Chopin 9-11). In addition, the Creole woman worships her husband, a holy privilege that obliterates her individuality (Chopin 10).
In the ancestral past of Europeans, woman is subject to oppression, ridicule, torture, imprisonment, and death for inherent qualities said to be that of a witch, (the natural qualities of woman). With the sanction of the Catholic Church, women accused of witchcraft were tried, and burned at the stake. Persecution is a means of suppressing a woman, controlling her, and causing her to change her nature to suit the purpose of a man. As an indirect result of the historical experience, the Creole woman’s nature differs; she is now like the Creole man; she demands perfection (Chopin 13). Consequently, this difference explains Adele’s reasoning for demanding the adornment of her husband. “If Adele’s husband did not adore her, he was a brute, deserving of death by slow torture” (Chopin 10). Because of being idolized, she, in turn, idolizes and is overprotective of her children, leaving them unable to stand their ground among other children. Consequently, she over-emphasizes the role of the mother (Chopin 9-10).
In as much as there is a converse difference between Edna and the Creole women, a difference an observer might not recognize or distinguish without an emotional perception of a subjective point of view, Edna begins to form a close friendship with Adele with bonds of sympathy as well as love (Chopin 15-16). There is no distinction of class between Edna and Adele like that which arose in a new society between the social elite and the new money elite. The rising upper-middle class (the bourgeoisie) emerges with the industrialization following the Civil War to compete against the social elite. Evidence of this animosity presents itself in the novel when Mr. Pontellier (a member of the social elite) does not attend the soirees musicales with his wife because he considers the soirees musicales bourgeois (Chopin 68).
Edna begins to display a rebellious nature as the novel zeroes in on the values of specific members of the society during a historical period while at the same time sexism becomes a symbol of superiority over materialism (Martinez 2). Nevertheless, the question is “Would men…be content with rational friendship instead of slavish obedience” (Wollstonecraft 150). Chopin acknowledges Edna’s rebellious protest when Mr. Pontellier says, “She’s making it devilishly uncomfortable for me . . . She’s got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women” (65). To symbolize rebellion and sexism, Edna’s father, a Confederate Colonel of the Civil War, comes to visit (Chopin 67). In addition, the Pontellier household has a special guest for dinner, Dr. Mandelet, who responds to the invitation of Mr. Pontellier (Chopin 67). Dr. Mandelet tells Mr. Pontellier: “Woman is a very peculiar organism . . . It would require an inspired psychologist to deal successfully with them” (Chopin 66). Thereby, Capitalism indirectly produces Freudianism as an answer to woman’s dilemma (Martinez 5). Dr Mandelet, Mr. Pontellier, and Edna’s father never consider the ramifications the after affects of a change in society has upon Edna (Chopin 64-71).
The Civil War is a war where brother fights against brother, evolving America from an Agrarian society to a Capitalistic society. America’s transformation causes to alter man’s value system, the foundation for the “Love of man”, to conform to the purpose of Capitalism (Fromm 6-76). A New Article of Faith within the society produces or introduces a family of new “hope”, which allows subordination-ism of impersonal forces, which are dependent and reliant on the existence of the Imperial Force to guide all factions of society to their destiny (Martinez 2).
Edna is guided towards her destiny when she becomes disillusioned and begins to live for today (not thinking about tomorrow), a trait that is characteristic of the American society following war involvement. “One of these days,” she says, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think–try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know . . . I must think about it” (Chopin 82).
The Creole husband is never jealous, as there is an honor among men. To him the mortification of passion or the interruption of circulation of passion is one who has become diminutive by discontinuance or practice (Chopin 12). For another man to lust after her made him feel proud. On Grand Isle, Mr. Pontellier even encourages participation to an extent in the prevention of boredom by his wife of her situation (Chopin 4-12).
The main character of the novel, Edna, the southern American woman, is shown love as God, our Lord, had intended by way of a friend, a single man, Robert Lebrum. Robert lacks the desire to pursue or gain through endeavor for wealth; he gives forth sudden, brief utterances of repeated expressions of appreciation and of affection; and yet he is a perfect gentleman (Chopin 12). The reality of a changed society does not affect him; Robert remains a unique individual untouched by intense ambitions for materialistic gain (Chopin 61). The new individualism introduced to society with the industrialization of America did not replace Robert’s uniqueness (Martinez 2). As a repercussion of Edna’s attraction for Robert, she alters her priorities.
“…When a woman is admired for her beauty, and suffers herself to be so far intoxicated by the admiration she receives, as to neglect to discharge the indispensable duty of a mother, she sins against herself by neglecting to cultivate an affection that would equally tend to make her useful and happy”(Wollstonecraft 142).
As an indirect result of Robert’s unchanged values, his love is unobtainable (Chopin 111). The love for which Edna longs leaves her in state of un-fulfillment (Chopin 114). Edna’s destiny is pre-ordained, that is, if Edna tries, if Edna struggles, if Edna works hard, but only, if Edna Conforms (Martinez 3).
“…The interest of each individual (is) to be virtuous; and thus private virtue becoming the cement of public happiness, an orderly whole is consolidated by the tendency of all the parts towards a common centre (Wollstonecraft 144).
The behavioral tactics of the forces within a changed society (Martinez 1-5) conditions Edna. Edna changes; she becomes more attentive to the children (Chopin 47). Edna has hope for a better tomorrow; she is willing to work hard to get ahead, to build a better future, if not for herself for her children.
Edna loves her children:
“She wept for the very pleasure when she felt their little arms clasping her; their hard, ruddy cheeks pressed against her own glowing cheeks. She looked into their faces with hungry eyes that could not be satisfied with looking. In addition, what stories they had to tell their mother! About the pigs, the cows, the mules!…It was a thousand times more fun to haul real chips for…real fire than to drag painted blocks along the banquette on Esplanade Street!” (Chopin 93). “It was with a wrench and a pang that Edna left her children” (Chopin 94) with old Madame Pontellier.
Edna has a dream (Chopin 98); she wants to be with her love, Robert (Chopin 110). However, her best friend, Adele, the Creole woman, needs her. Chopin uses the opportunity of separating Edna from Robert with the pretense of helping a friend to acknowledge Edna’s fear for her children. When her best friend, the Creole woman, says, “Think of the children, Edna. Oh, think of the children! Remember them!” (109) she reinforces Edna’s fear for her children. However, Edna has already thought of her children. As a result, she became lost in an unfulfilled dream; she gave into temptation. Edna reverts to materialism by promising the children “Bonbons” in restitution for her quilt of separating herself from them (Chopin 102) just as her husband did her in the past (Chopin 9). Conversely, Mr. Pontellier does not recognize his promises in the same manner (Chopin 7).
“Parents often love their children in the most brutal manner and sacrifice every relative duty to promote their advancement in the world” (Wollstonecraft 150).
Edna’s knowledge of her own transgressions and the loss of her love, Robert, sent her in protest of the affects of historical progression upon her and her life. Women in general fled into the streets, into the work place, in flight from their home and family, in search of a truth, in search for the answer to their dilemma. Edna was no exception.
Edna repeatedly said, “The voice of the sea is seductive, never-ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude” (Chopin 15, 113). Edna soars like “‘the bird above the level plain of tradition and prejudice” (Chopin 82). However, her wings are not strong enough; therefore, she becomes “a sad spectacle…bruised, exhausted” as she flutters “back to earth” (Chopin 82). Consequently, she is to find her peace in the solitude of the sea where “the voice of the sea speaks to the soul” (Chopin 15). Chopin attests to the significance of the Civil War when “Edna looked into the distance and the old terror flamed up…” (Chopin 114). Then “Edna heard her father’s voice and… The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged…” (Chopin 114). The reader’s imagination allows, “The touch of the sea” to become “sensuous, enfolding” [Edna’s] “body in its soft, close embrace” (Chopin 15).
In conclusion, an analysis should reflect and acknowledge the historical progression, the after effects of the Civil War, and the war’s consequential influence upon a society and its members. The implications of a societal change, class structure, and the values of man and woman who subsequently emerge following a war are a well-found revelation in consideration for what seems to be the author’s intended message. Hence, historical progression contributes to a consequential, unabridged, revered understanding of the novel’s theme and substance that, in turn, gives the novel historical significance.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. A Norton Critical Edition. (Culley, M. ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976.
Culley, M. Marginal Note. The Awakening. By Chopin, Kate. New York: University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1976.
I Corinthians 7:3. The Holy Bible. Kings James Version.
Fromm, Erick. The Art of Loving. World Perspective Series, Volume IX. Anshen, Ruth Nanda, ed. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1959
Martinez, Trudy. “Birth of the Impersonal Forces and an Analysis of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle”(an interpretation of history for the period 1865-1900). Written for Dr. Don Rosenberg, History 17B, Cerro Coso Community College, .Summer,1990.
Rowe, Anne. “Kate Chopin”. The History of Southern Literature: The War and After, 1861-1920, Part II. Rubin, Jackson, Moore, Simpson, and Young, Editors. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 185. 228-232.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of The Rights of Woman. A Norton Critical Edition. (Poston, Carol H., ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975. 3-194.